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Autumn Statement: the prospect for children’s benefits looks no brighter

Since 2012, we haven’t seen a solitary reference to child poverty in any budget or Autumn Statement, and poverty rates are rising.

Today’s the day that speculation about the content of the Autumn Statement reaches its peak. Will the Chancellor announce new spending cuts in light of lower-than-expected tax receipts? Or conversely, be in the market for some pre-election giveaways? Trails apart, we don’t yet know for sure what will be in the speech at 12.30pm tomorrow. But we have a pretty good idea what won’t.

The Autumn Statement is conventionally when the government announces how it will maintain the value of benefits for the following fiscal year. But in 2014, there’s little to say on the topic. Sheltered by the terms of the triple lock, the basic state pension will automatically be uprated by average earnings, prices or a nominal 2.5 per cent, whichever is higher. This year it is the last, which gives a happy uplift to the value of pensions over and above the cost of living. In stark contrast, the value of children’s benefits is locked down, this time by a decision at Autumn Statement 2012 to uprate them at a sub-inflation 1 per cent for the following three years.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Child benefit has suffered over the course of this parliament not just from the 2012 decision to increase it slower than inflation, but also by a three-year freeze instituted when the coalition took power. The benefit has lost over 13 per cent of its real value as a result of uprating decisions taken since 2010. But those with good memories will recall that the government provided a reason for cutting this vital and popular benefit.

As the government said at the time, “We will freeze child benefit to help fund significant above indexation increases in the child tax credit . . . This means that support will be better targeted at low-income families with children and that this budget will have no measurable impact on child poverty”.

So how has that worked in practice? In 2011, low income families did do well when the children’s element of child tax credit (CTC) was increased in line with prices, and given a further healthy boost of £180 a year. Child poverty actually went down that year. By 2012, the commitment to help low-income families was weakened: CTC was increased by inflation, but the Chancellor then reneged on his promise of a further significant increase above prices. That year, child poverty rates stayed the same. But by 2013, any idea of protecting poorer children from austerity had left the Treasury and shut the door: CTC could languish with 1 per cent uprating for the following three years along with the rest of them. Surprise, surprise: child poverty rates are now on the rise.

Academics have long pointed out that the extent to which we protect the value of children’s benefits is intimately linked with the rate of child poverty. This was something the Chancellor acknowledged in 2010, but has remained tight-lipped about ever since. In fact, since 2012 we haven’t seen a solitary reference to child poverty in any budget or Autumn Statement, nor any analysis in Treasury documents as to the poverty effects of spending decisions.  This goes beyond being simply depressing. When the government has an enduring legal duty to take action to reduce child poverty to negligible levels by 2020, it begins to look more like an act of avoidance.

Whatever next May brings, the prospect for children’s benefits looks no brighter. The Conservatives plan to freeze all support to families for another two years if returned to power; a Labour government would uprate child benefit at only 1 per cent for the same time period; and the Lib Dems have intimated that uprating decisions will be taken on an ad hoc basis as finances allow. The stable and poverty-reducing settlement the triple lock provides pensioners may be an unimaginable dream for children in the foreseeable future.

Uprating may seem tedious, but in truth it matters a lot. When children’s benefits are properly uprated, families don’t drift away from the mainstream; if their value withers away, we cut our children loose. When the Chancellor steps up to the despatch box tomorrow, we will all listen hard to every word he has to say. But spare a thought, too, for the issue on which he stays silent.

Lindsay Judge is Senior Policy and Research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.